The 2019 college football season will be one of transition for Pat Fitzgerald and his Northwestern Wildcats. The 2018 campaign was one of the most successful, if not the most successful, in program history. Northwestern won eight or more games for the third time in four seasons, but more importantly, the Wildcats won their first Big Ten West title, and played in their first-ever Big Ten Championship Game. A come-from-behind win in the Holiday Bowl only added to the list as it gave Northwestern three straight bowl victories for the first time in school history. So it should come as no surprise that the expectations surrounding the Wildcats are now higher.
It won't be easy for Northwestern to replicate last season's success, as there are numerous key players that need to be replaced with the hope that some are ready to take that next step forward, whether they are veterans or newcomers. The Wildcats also must navigate a tougher schedule in 2019, one that starts with a road trip to Stanford and includes Big Ten crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan State in addition to their West Division rivals.
If Northwestern wants to show last year was no fluke and emerge as a real threat to win its first Big Ten title since 2000, the work for that mission begins now.
5 Storylines to Watch During Northwestern’s Spring Practice
1. The post-Clayton Thorson era has begun
After the 2017 season concluded, the team had to replace its all-time leading rusher in Justin Jackson. With 2018 now in the history books, the Wildcats are tasked with replacing Thorson, who re-wrote the program record books during his time in Evanston. Thankfully, Northwestern has some options in Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson and senior TJ Green.
Johnson is considered the favorite to win the job based on his experience at Clemson (where he was a member of the 2017 ACC championship team) in which he completed 77 percent of his passes for 234 yards and a couple of touchdowns in mop-up duty. But Green can’t be discounted as he played in four games last year, completing 20 of 36 passes for 169 yards with an interception. To this point, Green has the edge in terms of familiarity with the playbook while Johnson is considered the better athlete. This will be the focal point of the spring and it's entirely possible this situation will not be resolved until fall camp.
2. Isaiah Bowser's development as the No. 1 running back
Last year at this time Bowser wasn’t exactly on the Wildcats' radar. When the 2018 season started the Ohio native was well behind starter Jeremy Larkin. But when Larkin was forced to retire due to cervical stenosis last September, Pat Fitzgerald initially went with a running back-by-committee approach. But Bowser took full advantage of the opportunity presented to him and ended up claiming the top spot on the depth chart. He finished the season with 866 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Now with a full offseason to get ready for 2019, Bowser needs to show he's the still the best choice for being the lead back this spring. If he gets the bulk of the carries, Bowser could put together a 1,000-yard season and state his case for consideration as one of the best running backs in the Big Ten.
3. New faces on defense
This side of the ball for the Wildcats no longer has Fred Wyatt and Jordan Thompson along the defensive line, Nate Hall at linebacker, or Montre Hartage and Jared McGee in the secondary. This spring session will give the team a head start in filling those holes in the lineup. Thankfully, whichever new players get the nod will have plenty of veteran talent and leadership surrounding them in guys like Joe Gaziano, Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, Nathan Fox, J.R. Pace, Trae Williams, and Alonzo Mayo.
4. First-ever spring practices held at Ryan Fieldhouse
When Ryan Fieldhouse, Northwestern's state-of-the-art training facility, opened last summer it did so in time for training camp. Seven months later it will host its first of what is expected to be many spring practice sessions. This facility has helped the Wildcats make strides in recruiting and put this team closer to even footing when it comes to facilities in the Big Ten.
5. The progress of the program under Pat Fitzgerald
Before taking over as head coach, Fitzgerald was a defensive assistant under Randy Walker. But after Walker’s sudden death in summer 2006, Fitzgerald was given the head coaching position on an interim basis but has since left his indelible mark on the program. He’s the first Northwestern head coach since Ara Parseghian (1956-63) to post an overall winning record (96-70), he’s only the fourth to take the Wildcats to a bowl game, and the only one to win four postseason games.
Under Fitzgerald’s watch, Northwestern produces NFL talent annually, recruits well given its academic requirements and restrictions, and has helped turn the Wildcats into a consistent winner in the rugged Big Ten. After rumors of potential interest from the Green Bay Packers for their then-vacant head coaching job, players and fans alike are happy to celebrate the start of what will be Fitzgerald's 14th season as Northwestern's head coach.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.